A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put you finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." -- John 20:24-29
I was thinking about my faith journey earlier in the week -- the result of trying to write a book about it! -- and realized that I am not that much different from Thomas. Or the other disciples, for that matter. They all needed some kind of proof that Jesus was truly alive again. Mark, at the end of his gospel, writes that the disciples did not believe Mary Magdalene when she told them she had seen Jesus. Nor did they believe the two who said they had met Jesus on the road out of town. They could not believe the testimony of other people. Each one needed to see, hear, and touch Jesus for themselves. They needed empirical evidence, before they would believe. I am not much different, because my faith also needs to rest on convincing evidence. I do not need to see, hear, or touch God, to know that God is real; I do not require empirical evidence. But I am convinced that God exists because of my own personal experiences of divine intervention.
This became apparent to me when I began to question my faith eight years ago (for some background about my journey of faith, please read My Lenten Talk ). At that time, I went through a bit of a crisis. Much of what I had grown up believing began to fall away, and I worried that my entire faith would fall away, that I would stop believing in God altogether. One thing kept that from happening. There were times when I had felt God speaking directly to my specific concerns in the words of a sermon during church. The coincidence between my very specific concerns and the words spoken to me was too great, and too unexplainable, for me to think anything else. And so, I began to think of God as The Peace Which Passes Understanding. That sense of peace became the foundation of my faith, and further experiences of God's guiding presence have continued to provide support. However, without that foundation, I wonder what would have happened to my faith, and my life.
Richard Elliot Friedman writes about the progress of belief in God in "The Hidden Face of God." Initially, the world of the Bible "is a world of upheavals of nature, of immediate proofs of divine presence. It is not a world of belief in God but knowledge of God. Indeed there is no word for "to believe" in biblical Hebrew. The word that is frequently translated as "to believe" means, in the original, something more like "to trust"; that is, it means that one can rely on this God to do what He has said He will do. It does not mean "to believe" in the sense of belief that God exists. God's existence is understood in these texts to be a matter of empirical knowledge, demonstrated by divine appearances and miraculous demonstrations." (pg. 14)
However, despite all this evidence of God's existence, the people did not listen to God. In fact, Friedman points out, the more actively engaged God was in the lives of his people, the more they behaved like disobedient children. Think of the Hebrew people in the wilderness, who had God present with them in a cloud of smoke by day and a cloud of fire by night, with their every wish fulfilled. They whined and complained, and continually did what God told them not to do.
Friedman notes that in the Hebrew Scriptures, from Moses to Esther, God becomes more and more hidden from his people. And, in conjunction, God's people become more and more responsible for themselves. One interpretation of this is that God was encouraging his children to grow up. In order for this to happen, they had to become independent of God, they had to fend more for themselves and learn from their mistakes. The only way for this to happen was for God to remove himself from the picture.
But, the risk in this hiddenness is that people will think they can do without God altogether, that humans can be God, or that something else will take the place of God (such as the Temple, the Torah, the Church, or the Bible), or believe that "God is dead," as Nietzsche put it, or that God simply never existed at all, as we more frequently hear today. And the frequent result of this perception of God is that people again lose their moral compass. With greater autonomy comes the potential for greater corruption.
So there is a problem with God being too much involved in the lives of his people. And there is a problem with God not being enough involved in the lives of his people. In both cases, humanity flounders. Witness the Holocaust, which came about because a group of men thought they had complete autonomy over the lives of the people within their borders, but was allowed to continue by others who thought that they had no autonomy at all over the lives of the people within their borders.
The only solution to this problem is for God to be present in such a way that he cannot be proven without a doubt to be present, nor can he be proven without a doubt not to be present. And that is what we have. People of faith and people without faith live with a certain measure of uncertainty, though they may not be aware of this. God cannot be dis-proven nor proven. Belief must rest on something else.
Though I believe God is present in my life, I cannot prove this. Though I can describe experiences of God's intervention, they will not convince everyone that God is real. But for me, this sense of God's Holy Spirit guiding my life is enough to push me to do more than I think I can. And it is enough to limit any feelings of grandeur I may have about myself.
Dear God, may we learn to see your presence sufficiently in this uncertain world so that we are perfectly guided to follow your will. Love always, Pam